Henry VI, Part 1 (MBU Shakespeare & Performance) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

Who cleans up the messes created by our leaders? Kyle Showalter, apparently. Summoned onstage by a click from the fingers of Anna Taylor’s imperious Winchester, Showalter’s unnamed servant began sweeping away the red and white petals that had littered the Blackfriars stage during an extended prologue. Later, Showalter’s servant appeared again, laying down a burgundy carpet to separate Basset (Anna Bigham) and Vernon (Ashley Wright) as they squabbled. Recurrent images of tidying characterized this stand-alone production of 1 Henry VI, directed by Doreen Bechtol and Matt Davies, as tensions both between England and France and within England itself threatened to destabilise a hard-won peace. But like a servile Cnut, the efforts of Showalter’s servant and others to stop the mess of dissent and treason taking over the stage felt futile. This was a world in which an older generation was clinging onto a semblance of order that was increasingly exposed as only a semblance as the divisions that would characterize the Wars of the Roses took shape.

Part of the generative mess of 1 Henry VI is the play’s overlapping tensions: England vs France, Gloucester vs Winchester, York vs Somerset, and the overlapping factions supporting them. But Bechtol and Davies’s production found its most original and productive tension in the less obvious conflict between generations. A prologue sequence saw the young, troubled Henry VI (Austen Bell) confronted with the small coffin of his father and a document containing Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech; too traumatized to read the letter, Henry allowed his uncle Gloucester (Guy Aiken) to take over. In doing so, Gloucester became the guardian of the past order. As he read the speech, the company cast down red and white petals from the balcony, littering the stage and establishing a conceit in which white or red petals were dropped onto each character who died; and Gloucester and Henry V’s generation came together to stand to attention around the dead King’s coffin: Talbot (Ethan Goodmansen), Salisbury (Rosemary Herold), Bedford (Molly Minter), Warwick (Cory Drozdowski), and Exeter (Godfred Ogoe), in white shirts, ceremonial trim, and the accoutrements of war. With this group associated with the rituals of memorialization, they seemed trapped in the past even as they tried to shape a future – one which Winchester was able to begin sweeping away as soon as he joined the old soldiers.

This older generation seemed to be reckoning with the spectre of its own obsolescence from the start. Ogoe’s Exeter fruitlessly picked up stray petals from the floor, and his quiet stoicism erupted into sudden outbursts of grave warning. Exeter’s slow, solemn soliloquies drew murmurs from the audience; his doom-laden prophecies had the dramatic weight of truth, but his sidelining into soliloquy made clear that no-one onstage was actually heeding him. The elder voices that were heard – specifically, those of Gloucester and Talbot – were loud, clear, and not a little pompous. Coupled with Drozdowski’s Warwick and Jim Drake as a supporting lord in the England scenes, the cast’s physically largest and loudest male-identifying actors clustered together in a forceful representation of an older, rhetorical, masculine model that drew on their memories of Agincourt, but which was increasingly undermined in an England whose values were shifting. In a notable comic sequence, Drake and Drozdowski’s comic lords were quickly bested at the Tower by Winchester’s smaller, feistier forces while Gloucester roared impotently on and Jess Snellings’s flustered Lord Mayor fussed, in an omen of things to come.

The main threat to Gloucester’s attempt to hold onto the trappings of traditional power was Winchester. The height difference between the tiny Bishop and the towering Lord Protector was played on as a visual representation of their tension: at one point, Winchester’s supporters brought out a box marked ‘Winchester’s Box’ so that Winchester could defy Gloucester face-to-face; at another point, Gloucester held up Winchester’s hands in a show of amity that left Winchester almost dangling and off-balance at full stretch. The best moment of their tension, though, came as Winchester began lowering the crown onto young King Henry’s head, only for Gloucester to say ‘Lord Bishop, set the crown upon his head’, forcing Winchester to pause for several beats as he wrestled with whether to continue with the action he had already begun or to defy what had now become an ‘order’ from his rival. Against the military men, Taylor’s Winchester was a seething force of resentment, who never cultivated favour with the audience – his asides were bitter and confrontational – but who received whoops in return for his brazen reorganization of space and power on the stage. When Gloucester tore off Winchester’s hat and trod it underfoot, the gasps of outrage from the audience were audible; when Winchester returned with an even bigger Cardinal’s hat, the point was well taken. While Aiken’s beautifully spoken Gloucester fought consistently for rhetorical control of the stage, Taylor’s tour-de-force performance repeatedly reset the terms of that stage, changing up the character’s modes of operation, style of dress, and use of scenery, while Gloucester seemed trapped in an increasingly dated way of doing things.

Talbot faced a similar problem in France. Goodmansen’s powerful warrior, like Gloucester, led with his resonant voice; but there were increasingly few people to listen to him, turning him into an ‘Old man shouts at cloud’ figure. Salisbury was shot by Wright’s over-enthusiastic, nervous Gunner’s Son; Minter’s tired Bedford slipped away quietly while sitting in a chair; and, in a moving sequence, the adorably earnest John Talbot (Jovita Roselene) was cradled in her father’s arms after having been killed, the scene anticipating the climax of Lear. Talbot still had his moments; the very funny encounter with the Countess of Auvergne (Herold), a Regency-style painted gentlewoman who reclined on her couch and greeted Talbot with an aloof disdain was a highlight, as Talbot plucked the bouquet of flowers he had brought from the horn they were cradled in and summoned a troop of soldiers who gathered on the upper balcony to shout in unison for Talbot. But otherwise, Talbot’s story was one of repeated defeats as a new world isolated him, made him irrelevant, and then let him die quietly of what seemed to be grief.

The French were, obviously, the baddies. John Williams made for a hilarious, affected Dauphin, with whitened face and disdainful sneer repeatedly uncut by his comic cowardice. Backed up by Showalter’s acidic Alencon, Nora Frankovich as a Reignier who was committed to the cause but seemed to be ready for the Dauphin to grow up, and a Bastard of Orleans (Katy Shinas) with a wicked grin so wide that it looked ready to split her face and a shriek of rage that rattled the woodwork [as a sidenote, Shinas also just had great fun with a rogues’ gallery of anonymous, mildly psychotic rioters and soldiers], the Dauphin and his court were distinguished by a chaotic individualism that initially made them look weaker than the formal English, but in fact gave them the flexibility and freedom to win. For every comic routing as they emerged, beaten or undressed, from the discovery space, there was a moment of triumphant posturing over their victims (the Bastard at one point needing to be physically restrained by the Dauphin from defiling the bodies of the Talbots, in a moment of surprising maturity by the French leader). The camp, messy, bickering French fought amongst themselves, but were also able to win Burgundy (Drake) to their cause precisely because of the variety within themselves.

Allied with the French nobles, Joan La Pucelle (Cece Richardson) emerged as the embodiment of the changing order. Mirroring the earlier besting of Gloucester’s men, Talbot was beaten quickly and decisively by Joan, who was only prevented from killing him by her sudden acknowledgement of an unheard instruction that it was not yet his time. JP Scheidler’s fight choreography was crucial to the tracing of shifting power dynamics throughout, but particularly to Richardson’s work in establishing a Joan who moved confidently into the space (her adoption of male habit a contrast and compliment to the effeminacy of the French court, and a riposte to the masculine normativity of the English) and who left men cowering at her feet – the Dauphin quivering with sexual excitement, Talbot with shame. While Richardson couldn’t escape the ignominy of Joan’s pleading to be spared in her final moments on the basis of carrying any number of different French lords’ unborn children – claims dismissed cruelly by Warwick and Margaret Levin’s York – or from the dismissal of her own father (Minter, playing a rarely staged character), this Joan ultimately left the stage with head held high, carrying a candle. But the character’s most powerful moment came during her summoning of the spirits who would help her. Half of the stage trapdoor opened, but nothing emerged from it. Instead, around the theatre, murmuring voices whispered consolingly, threateningly, mockingly, while Joan spoke into the void, reaching out desperately for support that was ultimately withheld, aligning her fate with that of the abandoned Talbot.

Where Gloucester and Talbot met their matches in Winchester and Joan, the older generation as a whole faced the more existential threat of the younger generation. For all of the conflicts among the English court, by and large they policed themselves. Another rarely staged character, John Fastolf, was given a full arc here: with his cowardice anticipated a couple of times, Abigail Olshin eventually emerged to give the poor soldier embodied presence, and to be shouted down by the united forces of Talbot, Gloucester, and King Henry. While I could have done without the prosthetic belly (the script makes no reference to the character’s size, meaning that the fatness felt imposed; and I feel that the 1H6 character is better served by not trying to conflate him with Falstaff), Olshin’s playing up of the pathos of Fastolf’s rejection, seeking sympathy from the audience as she skulked off, beautifully pointed up the self-defeating exclusionary rigidity of the English army. Bell’s impressionable, young Henry was being brought up in this rigid mindset, rejecting a man who was a coward but was also human. Far from the evoked all-inclusive band of brothers of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, the English forces seemed to be dwindling, leaving space for a new generation of less principled nobles. Bell’s Henry, within all this, was a title character still trying on a title for size; but while York accused him of picking the wrong side in choosing a red rose, the real tragedy here was Henry’s alignment with a generation who were dying out.

The glam aesthetic of the younger generation (designed by Wright, Taylor, Roselene, and Julia Sommer) troubled the rigid gender presentations of the older generation and also insisted on mess rather than tidiness. Sommer’s lairy Suffolk began the rose-plucking scene pissing off the edge of the stage, while Katie Mestres’s Somerset and Levin’s York, hair and make-up signalling their disaffection with the current state of affairs, faced off against one another. After plucking their roses, they later appeared with their faces smeared with red and white, the signifiers of allegiance across their faces also a defiance of the cleanness of the court’s aesthetic. Preening, aggressive, appealing to the audience for cheers in their favour, and actively soliciting support from the gallant stools, these combatants felt like rebels who didn’t especially need a cause, but who loved the posturing. Somerset, in particular, seemed to just enjoy angering people, riled on by Suffolk as a more conniving yes-man. Even formerly staid members of the older generation such as Warwick were pulled into the make-up and alliance-forming, suggestive of the shifting times. It was left to Olshin’s Lucy to try to appeal to any kind of higher morality in York and Somerset (in a beautifully compressed amalgamation of separate scenes), Olshin’s earnest, imploring performance trying desperately to get these couldn’t-care-less punks to care at all.

And this is where the true conflict of the play came into focus. With the French wars resolved – though only temporarily – and the conflict between Gloucester and Winchester at stalemate, the more ominous destabilising threat came from these younger lords, with none of the principles developed through war, finding their cause. For York, it came from the exhausted, dying words of Mortimer (Frankovich), perhaps the single most powerful distillation of the production’s recurrent interest in the passage of values from one generation to the next, as Mortimer leaned against crates and passed on the inherited disgruntlement over the right to rule to York, whose earlier indiscriminately destructive impulses suddenly found purchase and intent. And for Suffolk, this came from the encounter with Ella Pellegrino’s delightfully coy Margaret. Pellegrino’s delivery of the pointed ‘Suf-fuck’ brought down the house, but also gave the puerile Suffolk something serious to fixate on as she moved away from him, turned away mid-address repeatedly, and left him following her with his eyes. Suffolk’s delusion that his barely stated alliance with Margaret would lead him to the crown allowed him the production’s last word, even as Henry and Margaret appeared on high to cast down the production’s final shower of petals. But in the stand-alone context of a production of 1 Henry VI produced not as part of a sequence, the final image – Henry and Margaret standing aloof, Suffolk kneeling before – felt like a consolidation of the complete erasure of the older generation, without even Exeter to offer a parting shot, and without Showalter’s broom to stem the falling tide of the petals of death.

2 responses to “Henry VI, Part 1 (MBU Shakespeare & Performance) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse”

  1. A few simple props, a series of unusual and eye-catching costumes, and a rich supply of visual and auditory humor worked well to illustrate the endless squabbles, exchanges of insults, swordfights, and chase scenes for which Henry VI part 1 is well known, effectively taking the place of the excessively crude gobs of blood and guts with which lesser productions would have attempted to re-create the emotional impact of the War of the Roses. Well worth driving four hours one way to see!


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